Classroom computers boost face-to-face learning

May 22, 2009

Computers have been used for years to facilitate learning at a distance. A new European research programme shows that computers can also enhance collaborative, face-to-face learning and problem solving.

In recent years, computer-assisted face-to-face collaboration has become an important part of the workplace, under the rubric of computer supported collaborative work.

An EU-funded research initiative called LEAD (rhymes with seed) has now shown that students, too, can solve problems, master subject matter, and learn to collaborate more effectively when their face-to-face communication is enhanced by specific tools.

That is important, according to LEAD coordinator Jerry Andriessen, because individual learning and problem solving alone do not prepare students adequately for the interactive and collaborative settings they will encounter later in life.

“You have to learn to collaborate effectively with other people,” he says. “When you do, you can get much better results.”

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

CoFFEE for the students

The primary that the LEAD team created is called CoFFEE, for Collaborative Face to Face Educational Environment.

CoFFEE, which is now freely available as open-source software, is designed to be easily installed on any local area network, for example a school’s computer lab or any computer-equipped classroom.

Because CoFFEE is designed to foster communication and problem solving in class rather than learning at a distance, it does not require an internet link. It is designed to be simple to download, set up and use.

Typically, students use CoFFEE as part of a structured, face-to-face problem solving challenge. The students are in the same classroom and can talk to each other, but each student also has a computer running the CoFFEE interface.

Andriessen says that students quickly learn to switch naturally between verbal exchanges and computer-enhanced interactions.

Real-life example

He offers the real-life example of a group of nursing students asked to develop a care plan for a patient.

“In the past,” says Andriessen, “it would be typical for one student to do most of the work, and for there to be very little interaction and collaboration.”

CoFFEE, however, boosts cooperative problem solving through a suite of tools that help each student to analyse and understand the problem and make sure that every student has the opportunity to contribute to its solution.

The nursing students are asked to develop a nursing plan based on a patient’s symptoms and their possible causes, and to discuss each other’s solutions, says Andriessen. “In contrast to the older approach, everyone has to work and contribute.”

CoFFEE’s two primary tools for students - a discussion manager and a visualisation interface - complement each other by fostering clear verbal communication and clear visual representation of the problem and its solution.

The “dynamically categorised discussion tool” provides all the students with an organised record of the group discussion.

A teacher can structure the discussion by defining categories ahead of time. Or each student can categorise contributions in an intuitive way. For example, one student might organise comments by symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment plan, while another might use categories such as problems, medications, therapies and outcomes.

CoFFEE also goes beyond ordinary face-to-face conversation by letting students participate in and keep track of several discussions at the same time.

The discussion tool is paralleled by a visualisation tool. This helps students create a shared two-dimensional visual map of the problem and its solution.

Nursing students, for example, might divide the screen into boxes identifying problems, link problems to specific signs and symptoms, and then use arrows to match treatments to desired outcomes.

“Now that they can read what the other students have written and see what the other students are seeing, each student gains a lot of concrete information, and that helps all of them arrive at better solutions,” says Andriessen.

The students can also use other CoFFEE features, including private notes, one-to-one chat, file-sharing, and a shared writing tool to help them compose a joint report or other text.

A voting tool lets students compare their current stance on any issue, for example the proposed treatment plan.

Nursing teacher and educational consultant Astrid Broeker, at ROC Mondriaan in the Netherlands, compared students who were asked to develop a nursing plan with or without CoFFEE. She found that CoFFEE stimulated students to analyse the problem more carefully, seek more information, produce better plans, and learn more than students in normal face-to-face groups.

“Students must offer good arguments to change the minds of other students,” says Broeker. “To find those good arguments, they have to think and reason about each issue very clearly.”

Broeker also found that CoFFEE made students think and communicate not just about the content of the problem but about the problem-solving process itself. Many of them became more confident that they could solve problems on their own and help others.

CoFFEE has also been successfully tested in secondary schools and in some universities and business settings.

CoFFEE plus Tatiana for teachers

CoFFEE provides a simple interface that allows a teacher to plan a lesson or problem solving session in advance, and control it as it unfolds.

Teachers can create learning sessions either by inserting new subject matter into a pre-existing lesson plan, or by building a new learning experience from scratch.

According to Andriessen, a teacher does not need to know a lot about computers to start using CoFFEE effectively with the help of ready-made lesson plans. However, CoFFEE makes even creating completely new lessons relatively easy.

“If you’re able to make your own PowerPoint presentation, you can do this as well,” he says.

In addition to planning and structuring a learning experience in advance, teachers can use CoFFEE to monitor multiple discussions, transfer students from one group to another, and move discussions from stage to stage.

The LEAD team have provided educators with two sets of tools to review, assess and analyse CoFFEE-driven learning experiences.

Within CoFFEE, teachers can reload, rewind, and replay each session to see how a discussion progressed, evaluate each student’s contributions, and identify problems.

“This is a great advantage,” says Broeker. “The teacher can have a helicopter view over the learning process, see what’s happening, and do more specific interventions.”

For even more detailed studies of the learning process, LEAD researchers have developed a software package called Tatiana. Tatiana provides tools for annotating, categorising, filtering and analysing CoFFEE-generated discussions in order to produce information that educational researchers could use.

Andriessen is excited by what CoFFEE can bring to a classroom, and eager to see it used more widely.

“CoFFEE really does a lot of things that other educational tools can’t do, and we’ve seen new and more efficient forms of emerging when we use it,” he says. “I’d like educators everywhere to use it and give us feedback from what they learn.”

The LEAD project received funding from the ICT strand of the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research.

More information: www.lead2learning.org/

Provided by ICT Results

Explore further: A new app facilitates number and arithmetic learning in children with special educational needs

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Learning by blogging

Dec 03, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Many students learn best working together on structured, self-directed projects. European researchers have created software that links student blogs and other social software tools into a virtual collaborative ...

Teaching intangibles with technology

Jan 05, 2009

Teach students some facts, and they learn for one exam at a time. Teach students to think and they learn how to learn for the rest of their lives. Ambitious work from European and Israeli researchers is making it easier to ...

Giving learning a personal touch

Jul 18, 2008

A learning system that adapts to the abilities and needs of students opens the way to a more personalised approach in delivering education electronically.

Recommended for you

BPG image format judged awesome versus JPEG

23 hours ago

If these three letters could talk, BPG, they would say something like "Farewell, JPEG." Better Portable Graphics (BPG) is a new image format based on HEVC and supported by browsers with a small Javascript ...

Atari's 'E.T.' game joins Smithsonian collection

Dec 15, 2014

One of the "E.T." Atari game cartridges unearthed this year from a heap of garbage buried deep in the New Mexico desert has been added to the video game history collection at the Smithsonian.

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

docknowledge
not rated yet May 22, 2009
Uh huh. Used conference meetings at NASA for years. Contributed to "Distance Learning" program at ISP.

Don't remember much of anybody thinking they were especially worthwhile.

Attended a televised course from a major university. Better than nothing, I guess. Except it wouldn't have been difficult for me to go physically to the class. If I'd been interested in it, that's what I would have done.
vika_Tae
not rated yet May 24, 2009
As the technology advances, Doc Knowledge, so the capabilities increase. What you remember from your NASA years, is both government developed, so low-end, and using technology that we have moved on from.

These days, telelearning, is still in its child-stages, but has made major strides.

With regards to "it wouldn't have been difficult for me to go physically to the class" bit. If I may, it would not have been difficult for you, granted. What about someone for whom, one or more of the below categories apply:

* Work is on another continent.
* Financial means preclude travel
* Family commitments (eg new baby) preclude travel
* Possesses physical disability severe enough to restrict the range of facilities that can accomodate them
* has been diagnosed, or a family member/ close friend has been diagnosed with a highly infectious illness (say, a new strain of flu), and desires to collaborate with others on the project, but not put them at risk of infection.

It may or may not be the ideal learning medium, very much depending on context. By continuing to refine the paradigm however, we open up more options for both education and research that allow progress irrespective of contributor means.

That, of course, benefits us all.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.